Pro-Palestine solidarity in Europe and US making a difference despite repression 'in all areas of life'

Jana Treffler, Wednesday 22 Nov 2023

Throughout Europe and the US, solidarity with Palestine has surged despite worrying repression and accusations of antisemitism mixed with anti-migrant discourse.

Demonstration Berlin 21.10.2023 Oranienplatz
Despite several bans on demonstrations, people in Berlin took to the streets since the beginning of the war in Gaza. Photo: Montecruz photo


For the first time in his life, Salah, a 32-year-old German-Palestinian, asked himself whether he wanted to continue living in Germany or not. A country, despite racism and discrimination, he has always considered his home, he told Ahram Online.

Salah, who prefers to be identified only by his first name, is not alone in this feeling. Many Palestinians and Germans with Palestinian families have expressed a loss of belonging to their home country, Germany. The reason is that they have faced repression for their pro-Palestinian views, whether at protests, their workplace, or sports clubs.

Salah said he feels the repression “in all areas of life.”

Salah, together with a group of more than a hundred volunteers of diverse backgrounds, has organized six protests and vigils in Berlin since Israel’s war on Gaza started. They tried to organize seven more, but they were forbidden by local authorities. Moreover, protesters faced “physical and verbal police violence,” Salah said, adding that “the consequent fear has many people refraining from attending demonstrations.”

One month after the beginning of Israel’s war on Gaza, 450 pro-Palestinian demonstrations have taken place in Germany, as well as 413 pro-Israeli demonstrations, according to the Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser.

survey conducted by news magazine Der Spiegel among the 20 largest German cities revealed that a quarter of pro-Palestinian rallies have been forbidden. Of the ones that were allowed, 90 percent had conditions imposed upon them.

“Sometimes, the word ‘genocide’ was allowed, sometimes not,” Salah said, describing a police practice he perceives as uncoordinated and arbitrary.

Repression reaches cultural sphere

Repression in Germany has also spread to cultural spaces, beginning with the cancellation of an award ceremony for Palestinian author Adania Shibli in mid-October. A gallery exhibition on Muslim life in Berlin was cancelled by the organizers because of the “current political situation in the Middle East.” The exhibition by a Turkish-German Artist had no relation to Palestine.

The Museum Folkwang in the west German city of Essen ended its cooperation with a curator for his posts supporting the boycott-divest-sanction (BDS) movement, referring to a resolution by the German Parliament, declaring BDS antisemitic. The US-based artist was planning to curate an exhibition on Afrofuturism.

Last week, German public TV channel ARD removed the award-winning Palestinian film Wajib from its programme. An action, which has been criticized by the German press.

Targeting Jewish Israeli peace activists in Berlin

In the context of the Gaza war, Jewish Israelis in Berlin, who usually face less repression when expressing their solidarity with Palestine, have also been targeted, as well as the groups cooperating with them. When the Jewish Voice for Peace group (Jüdische Stimme für gerechten Frieden in Nahost) planned to hold an event in the migrant-led cultural space Oyoun in Berlin, the city government tried to dissuade "Oyoun" from having the event. After the group refused, the government decided to end public funding for Oyoun through the end of the year.

Eliana, a member of The Jewish Voice for Peace expressed her frustration to Ahram Online, saying she also experienced problems in her workspace due to her activism.

“When my boss heard about my position, he told me that he feared losing clients as he might be accused of antisemitism. In this case, he would need to let me go,” said the Israeli citizen, who has been living in Berlin since 2016.

In mid-October, another member of The Jewish Voice for Peace was temporarily detained when staging a one-woman-protest instead of a forbidden rally in Berlin holding a sign saying: “As Jew and Israeli: Stop the genocide in Gaza.”

Imported antisemitism” or homegrown?

In Germany, the debate about so-called “imported antisemitism,” which supposedly describes antisemitism among migrant populations, has mixed with the prevailing anti-migrant discourse, leading to calls for the expulsion of allegedly antisemitic residents. A draft law by the Christian Democrat Party (CDU) from last week proposes to make the “commitment to Israel’s right to resist” a requirement for citizenship.

Minister of Economy and Vice Prime Minister of the German Federal State of Bavaria Hubert Aiwanger referred to pro-Palestinian demonstrations as proof that Germany “has brought nonsense into the country.” Meanwhile, the right-wing populist politician was able to stay in office and even was re-elected, after it became public in August that he was the owner of strongly antisemitic flyers in his teenage years.

At the same time, journalists often demand Palestinian-Germans distance themselves from Hamas, rather than asking them how they feel or how they are dealing with the stressful situation, Salah said. This constant suspicion, combined with increased talk about expulsion, adds to the feeling of not being safe, not being welcome in Germany anymore.

Despite this frustration, people repeatedly took to the streets in several German cities. In the west German city of Düsseldorf, 17,000 protesters assembled on 4 November. Before that, 11,000 took to the streets in Berlin on 28 October, according to the police.

A graffiti in Berlin reads: "The flag is our rebirth. Half of me is in Berlin and all of me is in Palestine". Photo: Malek Khemiri

Public opinion in Germany has shifted over the course of the war. One week after Hamas' attack on 7 October, 66 percent said they supported the government's unconditional backing of Israel. Two weeks later, another poll revealed a split in German opinion, with 43 percent considering the Israeli action appropriate and 41 percent saying it "goes too far."

If Palestinian civilians were harmed, 61 percent of Germans disagreed with Israeli actions. However, in another poll from mid-November, 50 percent still supported Israeli military action against only 35 percent rejected it.

Hundreds of thousands march in London

Support for Palestine has historically been higher in Britain than in Germany and other European countries, except Spain. Already in October, 76 percent of British people were in favour of a ceasefire, a YouGov poll showed.

Despite the government framing shows of solidarity as "hate marches" and "disrespectful,” London still witnessed the largest pro-Palestinian rally in its history on 11 November when 300,000 people marched demanding a ceasefire. A few days later, 56 Labour parliamentarians backed an amendment calling for their government to demand a ceasefire. 

Meanwhile, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was disinvited from an event in Berlin, organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, a Think Tank affiliated with the leftist party Die Linke, for his pro-Palestinian position. However, the German leftist party's position changed. A week later, at their federal party congress and after a heated debate, the party adopted a resolution in support of a ceasefire.

Defying bans in France

While demonstrations in support of Palestine had been forbidden in all of France after the beginning of the war, the highest court finally ruled that a ban would need to be decided case by case. The French government also shifted their position a month after Israel began indiscriminately bombing Gaza, supporting a ceasefire and calling on Israel to protect civilians.

Despite the general ban, rallies with large numbers of participants and even union support have been organized. On 18 November, between 45,000 and 100,000 protesters took to the streets, with the police estimating a lower number than the union's.

One month into the war, public opinion also shifted in France. Sympathies for Israel decreased from 37 percent in October to 25 percent within two weeks according to an IFOP poll published on 9 November.


Biggest pro-Palestinian protest in US history

In the US, Palestinian solidarity groups and individuals speaking out for Palestine also risk being silenced. In an op-ed, Dylan Saba from Palestine Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal support to the Palestine solidarity movement, writes: “We have received hundreds of requests for assistance over the past two weeks, an exponential surge in our caseload.”

Besides the workplace, universities are affected. At Columbia University in New York, two student groups – Students for Justice and Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace – were suspended last week for violating university policies, according to CBS News. Later it was revealed that campus regulations had been changed shortly before the suspension.

On 4 November, 300,000 people marched in Washington DC to show solidarity with Palestine, one of the biggest in US history.

In polls, the US is traditionally the most pro-Israeli western country. However, A poll commissioned by The Financial Times showed decreasing support. In mid-October, 41 percent of Americans approved of US policy toward the conflict, while only 32 percent approved in mid-November.

People gather to protest the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at Columbia University on November 20, 2023 in New York City. AFP

"Law-and-order" policies

The repression of protests and expressions in favour of Palestinians have been criticized by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. Restrictions on the freedom of expression must meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality under international human rights law, the organization Article 19 writes in a statement, adding that: “We are increasingly seeing these standards compromised by the reactions of governments in Western democracies. This trend must cease.”

This trend can be seen against the background of the rise of law-and-order policies in recent years. The violent crackdown of the yellow vest protests in France, as well as the defamation of climate activists as "terrorists" in Germany resulting in repressive state action such as preventive detention of activists are worrying tendencies in European countries.

Marginalized populations are likely to be disproportionately affected, as the repeated bans of Nakba commemorations in Berlin show.

Meanwhile, Salah and his group of volunteers have added another form of organizing to their protest repertoire

“For three times already we have offered safe spaces, where people can meditate, express their feelings freely, without being recorded, without worrying about anything,” he said. According to him, addressing the “mental wellness” of affected people has become a dire need in Germany.

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